Louie Anderson is characteristically humble about being selected as one of Comedy Central’s greatest stand-up comedians of all time. He acknowledges, though, that he selected a profession that suits his talents.
“I was going to be a politician, but I think I picked the right thing,” he said in a recent phone interview. “I think I’d be a terrible politician. I would be really good at getting elected, but I wouldn’t be very good at following up and doing the job. Comedians, that’s not their best thing. But I’m really glad I found it, and I love doing it.”
The St. Paul native, who said he’s in his 41st year as a comedian, will share that love for his craft at 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 21, at Menomonie’s Mabel Tainter Center for the Arts. Like his stand-up act, Anderson’s conversation was, of course, funny and occasionally self-effacing but also warm, astute and filled with genuine gratitude for his success. He battled with a cold through the interview, apologizing frequently and explaining he may have caught the bug on set while filming his role in the sequel to Eddie Murphy’s “Coming to America” film. (More on that later.)
Anderson’s humility extends to being on the Comedy Central list, which came out in 2004 and has him at No. 92. Such an exercise is subjective, he said, adding, “It’s nice to be on that list because if you’re not on that list and it comes out, you’re bummed out, you know what I mean?”
Asked what makes a comedian great, he said, “I think what makes a comedian great is when their body of work represents a point of view that people can embrace,” which certainly applies to him, although he expressed surprise at his stature in the business.
“I found out most recently — I didn’t realize I had any influence at all, but some pretty famous comedians now have come up to me and said, ‘You’re the reason I got in. I saw your first special at the Guthrie Theater (in Minneapolis) and I decided to do comedy.’”
Making it work
For all of his success in film, television and as an author of books, Anderson said his live stand-up show continues to be one of his first loves.
“There’s no director, there’s no writer, there’s no camera,” he said. “It’s just you and the audience and a microphone, and that’s a really great feeling.”
That doesn’t mean it’s always easy, though.
“The thing about comedy is it’s wonderful when it’s working, and it’s wonderful when it isn’t working,” he said. “Because as a comedian, if it’s not working you have a chance to figure out how to make it work.”
That, he continued, is where the rewards lie.
“Some comedians, me included, will go down the path where they don’t know where they’re going in hopes that their skills will bring them to a place that will be completely entertaining and people will get a lot out of it,” he said, going on to note that such a challenge offers life lessons.
“You really feel alive,” he said. “You feel so alive, and isn’t life about feeling alive? Don’t you know when (referring to the interviewer) you’ve written something really good ... and you go, ‘That’s really a good line; that’s going to be really good!’ Because I really think it’s better if we ask more of ourselves, even if we’re not sure we can do it. When you’re a kid, you do it automatically, and then people scare you and tell you not to do it.”
Out of all the formats for his talents, he considers writing books the most difficult.
“Because a book sounds like a good idea when you decide to do it, but then you get into it and you go, ‘What the hell was I thinking?’” he said. “‘Because none of this makes any sense.’”
It might seem obvious Anderson has found the knack, considering the best-seller status of volumes such as “Dear Dad — Letters From An Adult Child,” a collection of alternately touching and outrageous letters from Louie to his late father, and “Goodbye Jumbo … Hello Cruel World,” self-help for those who struggle with self-esteem. But he shared the credit.
“I always try to get a good editor, somebody who can help me with that,” he said. “The English language is not my forte, but I think I have a way of saying things that might be interesting to people. I love to write, but still I come back to: What’s better than going out on a stage and thinking you can keep people entertained for an hour and a half. That’s my favorite.”
His current show will include some of his “oldies but goodies” along with never developed material he has collected throughout his career that he has gone back to and worked up.
“I’m just having the time of my life,” he said.
Tribute to mom
Busy beyond the comedy stage, Anderson just finished his Emmy Award-winning turn on the FX network comedy “Baskets,” as the series’ final episode aired last month. Playing Christine Baskets, mother of the character played by series star Zach Galifianakis, Anderson has said he based his performance on his own mother, who died in 1990. In fact, he credits the fact that audiences loved Christine to his inspiration for the role.
“I think it had to do with the humanity of Christine,” he said. “I think she just loved everybody and accepted them for who they were — and are. I think it came from my mom. She was always nice to everybody she met. She was a tremendous person.”
Asked how he felt about offering such a warmly received tribute, he responded, “I feel terrific about that. Or I felt terrific about her giving me that tribute. I really felt like she was right there when I did that part because, I don’t know if you could, but I can’t see Louie Anderson when I do that part. So that resonates with me.”
Christine’s personality also provided laughs for the audience. “She’s a force to be reckoned with and she’s really a bull in a china shop and she blames you for breaking things, do you know what I mean?” he said.
Fans of the show will be happy to know Anderson suggested Christine could possibly reappear at some point.
“I was thinking about doing ‘An Evening With Christine Baskets: Advice on Love, Life and Parenthood,’” he said. “It would be fun, I think.”
Despite the cold he picked up, Anderson effusively praised the experience he had on the “Coming to America 2” set. In the initial film he played Maurice, a fast-food restaurant worker who dreams of rising through the ranks of the eatery and making the big bucks.
“I can’t talk too much about specifics, but I can tell you that it was a wonderful experience and 30 years coming,” he said of the follow-up. “For 30 years people have been saying to me, ‘When are you going to make another ‘Coming to America?’ and now I can say, ‘We did ...’”
He also credited Murphy for the quality of the new work.
“Eddie and I had a tremendous talk,” he said. “He’s such a wonderful person. He really cared a great deal about this project and put everything he had into it.”
Along with “Coming to America,” Anderson scored a role in another cinematic classic from the 1980s: “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” in which he played the small part of a flower deliveryman. That opportunity came from the fact that John Hughes, the film’s writer, director and co-producer, was a fan of Anderson’s comedy.
“He was a lovely person,” Anderson said of Hughes, who died in 2009, leaving a legacy of beloved comedies such as “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” “The Breakfast Club” and “Home Alone.” “I wasn’t a very good actor back then so he just was being kind. It was very lovely of him. He was a genius. He brought us a whole bunch of movies — wow! — that influenced movies.”
On the small screen, Anderson guest starred in sitcoms such as “Grace Under Fire” and dramas like “Touched by an Angel” and “Chicago Hope.” He also made a popular turn in 2013 on “Splash,” an ABC competition-based reality show that involved celebrities diving. Seen as an underdog because of his size, Anderson heard from many fans who were inspired by his performance.
“People wrote me,” he said. “I encouraged them to try more things. It’s a wonderful feeling, and I had a blast doing it because it was my chance to climb the gym rope at school. It was a wonderful experience. It was like my splash back into show business, kind of. I’d been off for a while, and people got to see me, and I think a lot of people got a kick out of it and enjoyed it.”
As the conversation came to a close, Anderson wrapped things up, appropriately, with a punch line. He asked the interviewer if he was related to any famous Foys. He was referring to the vaudeville act Eddie Foy and the Seven Little Foys, who were popular nationally and whose story became a 1955 film starring Bob Hope and James Cagney.
“You should check it out,” he said. “You should do one of those ancestry things and see if you’re No. 8.”